Review Summary: What is neo-soul, anyway?
There’s an interesting theory which has been discussed among scholars and professors over the past few decades which postulates that the ultimate goal, whether conscious or subliminal, of most traditionally black music over the past fifty years is an attempt at expression of self. These theorists argue that after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, along with racism becoming more rampant on a cultural rather than strictly institutional level (which is a discussion for another time), a lot of young African-American adults (and a juvenile Michael Jackson) convalesced from and tried to understand the tenuously-stitched wounds of the past few centuries through their interpretations of what, exactly, “black music” meant to them.
Especially since it’s salient to the album at hand, soul, funk, and rhythm and blues are particularly interesting for their incredibly nuanced take on a post-Jim-Crow U.S. The styles were, at least most publicly, an affirmation of “blackness;” at the time, something like James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)” was revolutionary in the way it embraced a long-downtrodden culture on the national level the song reached. The musicians also struggled with the question of what, exactly, it meant to be a black male in this brave new world (and yes, until Queen Aretha most of the artists were indeed male). Some scholars view the falsetto as an almost anti-masculine device of sorts: it’s not just a deviation from the standard male range, but also a pronouncement of traditionally non-male emotions, like pain, love, and tenderness. After so much stoicism during the cataclysmic racial tensions of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, “soul music” was an inexorable platform for the outpouring of emotions necessary for the artists to simply cope
with the darkness they were experiencing - it’s near-impossible to even attempt to comprehend the kind of inner torments a singer like Stevie Wonder underwent throughout the dark period that resulted in brilliant albums like Songs in the Key of Life
. Of course, this kind of delicate balance between composure and the lack thereof created the incredible art the period was known for, pushing music to its breaking point in the most accessible way possible and paving the road for the hypermasculine response of hip-hop and the incorporation of popular, primarily black stylings into Detroit techno, Chicago and New York house, and the subsequent electronic explosion in England which irrevocably transformed the artistic landscape of the Western world.
Fatima, aside from her physical and vocal manifestation, is rather far removed from the world-altering conundrums of U.S. soul music. Born and raised in an (at least superficially) idyllic Sweden, she currently participates in a long-ago-racially-integrated U.K. electronic music scene where she works with a multicultural melange of producers from all over the world in order to fulfill her artistic vision in the most satisfying way possible. However, the unsettling yet inevitable reality of a woman of color with a voice of caramel being judged on aural and visual appearance almost before the Play button is hit has permeated Yellow Memories
, her debut album. That impossibly-overgrown societal influence stares the listener in the face right from the get-go - there she is in all her glory on the album cover, half-confident smirk in front of an unassuming rose-wallpaper backdrop, almost daring you to comment. There’s the soul in the first few seconds of album opener “Do Better,” organ, guitar, bass, horns, funk drums providing a sublime backdrop for her sultry vocals.
The seeming incongruity between Fatima the stereotyped artist (black, soul, female) and Fatima the slightly-less-stereotyped artist (Swedish, well-educated, musical talent) makes for a compelling listen alone - who wouldn’t be excited by the prospect of a singer undergoing totally-different-yet-kinda-similar circumstances as the great soul singers of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Of course, it helps that the music itself is utterly amazing. Fatima’s collaborations with her small army of producers have resulted in an absolutely wonderful marriage of voice and instrumental backdrop. The muted, melancholy funk of “Underwater” is supremely satisfying, voice and trumpet sending shivers of pleasure down the spines of any listener already engrossed by the fluid synth backdrop, while “La Neta” slinks and purrs down the noir alleyway of Fatima’s crooning before the song’s samba-phile tempo change.
Which brings us back to Fatima’s treatment and exposure of self - the music, at its best, highlights the machinations of her psyche in coping with how she understands her place in music. If “neo-soul” hadn’t already been co-opted by music execs to sell forward-thinking black records in the ‘90s, it would be a perfect description of Yellow Memories
. The album seems a modern interpretation of the various crises of the best soul artists of the days of yore: whether she’s self-analyzing and self-improving on “Do Better” or lamenting love gone dull on “Biggest Joke of All,” she chronicles her journey through her nebulous day-to-day life, her very real responses to her very real problems. Except she’s also burdened with the extra issue of creating a soul album in which all the instruments are imagined, where the music itself (if not the musical ideas) comes from an array of mostly white producers instead of a full cadre of backup vocalists and musicians. It’s a tricky situation to deal with: sure, Floating Points and Flako make some of the most interesting music coming out today, but are we really sure they feel
the way Fatima wants them to feel, the way B.B. King felt when he wailed away on his guitar, the same way she wants to make us feel when she sings to us?
The slow-burner downtempo of closer “Gave Me My Name” represents an ideal answer. “Have you forgotten about me?” she pleads. “You gave me my name.” In one of the most vulnerable and emotion-filled vocal performances this year, she reveals herself fully, naked and pained and human. The gorgeous organ and heartbreaking vocals shatter any doubts about her legitimacy as a soul singer by revealing other doubts she holds for herself as an artist, a person, a woman of color, and a whole host of other identities and masks she inhabits. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this is the nebulous essence of a lot of quintessentially soulful and human questions we all hold about ourselves to some extent. It picks up the discussion which has been held sparingly since the rise of gangsta-rap and politically conscious hip-hop, the one so carefully picked apart and reassembled by the best musicians of a sadly-bygone era. Yellow Memories
is a worthy successor to the soul, funk, and R&B of the ideologically-charged ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and for that, and all its countless other positive facets, it is an absolutely vital work of art.